Nothing to do with Gardening! A Story.
The Ashton Road Gang
This is a true story, only the facts and the identity of the people mentioned have been changed to protect the innocent.
In fact none of the incidents or characters portrayed are real. This is a work of fiction.
The story is set in the mid 1950’s in a small town in the north of England. The action centres around the area in which a gang of 10 year old boys live and play.
Sledding on the Leas.
“Billy! Mum says you’re to put you hat and coat on and go round to Uncle Joe’s on a message for her.”
That was my sister Mary shouting up the stairs.
“Typical!” I thought. I had just rescued my ‘Beano’ from under Dad’s bed and I was settling down in the bathroom to read it in peace.
“And hurry up, or else,” she added. "I want to go in there.
Slowly I made my way down the stairs in time to hear Mary moaning to our Mum
“It’s not fair, he spends hours in there, just when I want to go in.”
“You could always use the outside toilet,” said Mum. She was sat in front of the fire sewing a button on to my school coat.
“But there’s no mirror in there and I want to comb my hair,” said Mary.
“Comb it over your face and give us all a treat.” I said that very quietly because I like living and our Mary was the best fighter in the road.
“That’s enough Billy,” Mum frowned. “And young ladies don’t punch,” she added looking at Mary’s clenched fists.
“Hummph!” Mary said as she flounced out of the room.
I grinned after her. Dad often said that one day she would flounce so hard her head would fly off her shoulders. The sooner the better I thought.
“I don’t know why you two have to fight so much,” sighed Mum.
I did. We hated the sight of each other, but I was not going to try to explain that to our Mum.
“Ah well!” She said. “Take those parcels from the table round to Uncle Joe’s. It’s their Christmas presents. And be careful with them.”
“Aww, why can’t she go? It’s raining.”
“I’m sending you. Anyway Uncle Joe told your Dad that you were to be sent round. So off you go. Now!”
There was no point in arguing. You could argue with Dad, sometimes, but Mum just looked at you over the top of her glasses and something inside you just froze. I put on my hat and coat, hid the ‘Beano’ under the piano in the front room and went. I did allow myself a small protest by slamming the front door behind me.
Uncle Joe’s house was not that far. I handed over the parcels to Aunty Lily, accepted a biscuit and waited to see what Uncle Joe wanted. I always felt a bit nervous of him, one minute he was friendly and the next he shouted at you for nothing. Mum just muttered something about “Nerves” and “The War” when I said anything.
“Have you been good?” he asked suddenly.
“Er!” It was a silly question really. According to some people I was never good. “Not especially bad, Why?” I asked.
“So I heard.” He was smiling. “What are you getting for Christmas then?” he went on, still looking friendly.
“I have no idea” Dad was not well paid. Mary and I had been warned not to expect too much in the way of presents. “Mum reckons we’ll be lucky to get anything the way prices keep going up.”
Uncle Joe nodded. “Well I’ve got you something. It’s too big to wrap up so you can take it with you, now.
It’s in the yard. Come on.”
I had no idea what ‘It’ could be. I was led through the kitchen and into the backyard. There, leaning against the wall was a gleaming new sledge. I was speechless.
“It’s got steel runners,” said Uncle Joe.
My eyebrows climbed.
“Well! Don’t just stand there, like one of Woollies, say summat.”
I could not, I went on my knees next to it and ran one exploring finger over a shiny runner trembling in case it somehow evaporated and disappeared into thin air.
“Is, is it really for me,” I asked breathlessly.
“It’s’. it’s!” Words failed me.
“Ah well,” said Uncle Joe. “Happen as how it will stop you sawing up your Dads stepladders when it snows.”
I must have blushed at that because he laughed. It was true. The gang and I had been considering using the stepladder as a toboggan.
Eventually I found the words to thank him. I must have done it properly because he was still beaming when I left carrying the precious sledge. I could not wait for it to snow so that I could show off in front of my friends.
Christmas came and went, very pleasantly. The Weather was miserable, warm for December and sunny. Every night I prayed for snow. Somebody must have been listening. On the last day of the year it began to snow.
I heard Mum say that she hoped it was not going to be another 1947, but I did not care. The snow fell and soon covered the ugly houses and factories in a Christmas Cake like layer of white.
The snow fall was too heavy to go out that day. I went to bed early to bring the morning sooner. The next day brought sunshine and best of all, frost.
The road on which we lived, Ashton Road, sloped from top to bottom. It was only a side road so the council did not spray salt on it. Pedestrians were safe because the pavements were cleared by people throwing ashes over the snow and ice. At any time when there was enough snow or frost we made a slide down the middle of the road. The few cars and lorries stayed on the main road so the slide was not in as dangerous a place as it sounds. The only wheeled traffic to use Ashton Rd was either two wheeled which kept to the side or the horse drawn milk float. The horse had no trouble with its studded shoes.
It did not take long for the hobnailed boots of the sliders to pack the snow into ice and polish the ice until it shone like glass. As with everything else, just sliding was soon not enough for the Ashton Rd. Gang. Competitiveness crept in. We wanted to know who could slide farthest backwards, crouching down, who could do twirls. We would try anything to impress the others.
These tricks led to a crop of injuries, cuts, bruises, grazes and ice-burns. My mother used to go mad about the cost of plasters and the damage to my clothes and boots.
This morning I pulled my new sledge to the top of the road, trying not to look smug. The rest of the gang were already out with their sledges, wooden runners of course. With a gentle push I slid down to meet them. The sledge glided like a dream. The lads gathered round.
Stew, who lived next door to me, said,“Cor! Where did you get that?”
“Christmas present from my Uncle Joe,” I replied proudly.
“It’s got metal runners,” exclaimed Bob.
The sledge had to be turned over so that the runners could be examined closely.
“They’re only bits of tin,” sneered Simon. “They’ll wear out in a day”. His parents owned a shop on the corner of Ashton Rd and Green Lane. They had more money to spare than anyone else’s parents. He was used to having the best of everything.
“They are steel, real steel.” I was not having him being rude about my prize possession.
“Where did he get it from?” Noddy asked. His real name was Lawrence but he had an unfortunate physical disability. Every few seconds his head jerked forward. Not far, just enough to look as if he was agreeing. That is how he got his nickname.
What he actually did and said was (nod) “Where did he get (nod) it from(nod)?”
“Pinched it,” suggested Simon.
What difference does it make?" I asked. “It still goes faster than yours.”
“Rubbish!” Simon snorted. “Race you down the road, ten steps and first to reach No. 76’s front door.”
“Right you’re on. Noddy you call ‘GO’ and the rest of you watch the finish.”
The gang scattered.
“No cheating!” I said to Simon. I had competed against him before.
“Nor you!” he replied.
“I don’t need to.” I was full of confidence. Rightly so, I won easily. Simon was annoyed until I let him have a turn on my sledge. For the rest of the day we slid down Ashton Rd. At tea-time we all went home. I hoped that the snow would still be there next morning.
It was. After breakfast the sledding began again, but it did not last for long.
“I’m fed up with this,” said Stew. “The road is not steep enough to go really fast. Besides my Mum will send me on a message before long. I can feel her watching me.”
This being sent on messages was the bane of our lives. All the mothers did it. That was the trouble with Ashton Rd all of it could be seen from front room windows. It cramped our style at times.
“Where would we go?” Peter asked. “You know Mum doesn’t like me going too far away.”
Peter was an only child and had no father. He also suffered from bad attacks of asthma. His mother tended to baby him, much to his embarrassment. He liked to think he was as tough as the rest of us.
“Holly Bank,” suggested Grubby.
His nickname had nothing to do with a lack of washing, but from his habit of carrying matchboxes of assorted caterpillars, beetles and spiders. Even his parents called him by his nickname.
“That’s a good idea,” I said. “Come on.”
We were too wise to suddenly grab our sledges and dash off. Somebody’s mother would be certain to call us back and demand to know where we were going. Slowly and innocent like, we wandered off some in one direction, some in another. We met in the alley behind Simon’s house and set off.
Holly Bank was a fenced off piece of land next to a railway bridge. It was part of the bridge embankment and railway property. It sloped steeply nearest to the bridge, but flattened out at the other end. Even there it was steeper than Ashton Rd.
“Cor! Nobody’s been on it, “Exclaimed Simon, peering at the perfect layer of snow through the tall iron railings.” Gimme a leg up."
It did not take long for seven agile lads to climb in. We started off sledding down the shallow slope until Simon got bored.
“I’m going down the steepest part,” he announced.
He did too, so the rest of us had to follow him, just to prove that we were as brave as him. The fence a t the bottom was tricky. You had to dig in your toes and fling your weight to one side to stop. Remember we were going down head first.
“I can get nearer the fence than anyone else.” Simon was full of himself.
“Oh aye,” said Grubby in a challenging sort of voice.
Simon went down like an Olympic champion, head first lying on his stomach. He stopped in a shower of snow only inches from the iron bars of the fence.
“Beat that!” He shouted as he climbed back up the slope.
Bob was a bit more timid and stopped a foot short. Peter went next. He lay on his sledge and gave himself an almighty shove and slid down like an avalanche. I have no idea what went wrong. The fence stopped him. For a moment, we just stood and looked down the slope to where he lay, unmoving.
“Oh heck!” said Stew.
Then we all began to run. If you have ever tried running down a steep slippery snow covered slope you will know how stupid that was.
Grubby who was behind everyone else fell and began to roll. There was no chance of getting out of his way. Simon, Bob and Noddy were mown down. They rolled past me, missing me by inches. The shock of seeing them go past caused me to lose my footing and I finished up sliding feet first, after them. The fence stopped all of us, except Stew. He was the only one still on his feet. He was bent double half up the slope, laughing hysterically. Not for long though, his feet slipped as he stood up to catch his breath. After a quick slide he joined the rest of us.
Five small snowmen sorted themselves out staggering around in circle brushing snow out of eyes, mouths, ears, faces and clothes.
I could not help them. My feet and legs had gone through the bars of the fence and my thighs were jammed tight. I could not move them.
Peter could not help either. Remember he had gone down head first. He was yelling because his head was stuck between the railings. Eventually the gang stopped giggling and tried to free us.
“It’s no use” Stew puffed, “You are stuck fast.”
“It’s ’is ears,” said Bob nodding wisely.
“It’s ’is fat legs,” said Simon grinning widely.
“If you lot stopped laughing you’d do a lot better. I screamed. My legs were hurting Peter was sobbing and choking.
“What are we going to do?” Noddy was beginning to sound panicky.
“Go to the station and get help”, I shouted, I’m freezing".
The Railway Station was just the other side of the bridge.
“Er!” Bob said. “They ain’t gonna be very pleased.” He pointed to the sign which read ‘Railway Property No Trespassing."
“I don’t care!" I was desperate. “Get us out!”
“All right,” said Simon. “Don’t go away.”
“Haha! Very funny. I’ll give you something to laugh about on the other side of your face when I’m free, I screamed at him.” Get going."
There was nothing else they could do. First, though they hid the sledges round the corner, leaving Bob in charge, just in case.
Five cold minutes later they were back with three railway men. Peter had stopped coughing and sobbing by now His breathing sounded very peculiar. He did not answer when I called to him. I thought he was in a huff.
“Well?” said a familiar voice, “And what have we here?” It was my grandfather who worked at the station. It was just not my day. Grandad Acock was a great bloke, but he was strict. Even my Dad had to be on his best behaviour when Grandad Acock came to visit.
“Er. Hello Grandad.” I managed a weak smile “We was only sledding.” I thought a tear might help so I squeezed some out. They were wasted really.
“Jack Come here!” shouted one the other men. “Come here quick!”
Grandad went over to Peter and bent over him. He straightened up and said something to the man who had shouted. That man went running off back towards the station.
“You’ll have to sit there for a bit longer while we deal with him,” shouted Grandad to me. He sounded worried.
He and the other man lifted Peter up, turned his head a bit and out of the railings he came just like that. His face was a funny blue colour. I did not think it was that cold.
The third man came back. “It’s on its way,” he said
I wondered what it was and why Grandad was pushing up and down on Peter’s chest.
Grandad looked over at me. “Yank him out?”
His two mates grabbed my arms and yanked. It hurt, but I came out. I tried to stand up, but my legs were numb with cold and lack of circulation. I sat in the snow and rubbed them.
There was a jangle of bells as an ambulance came rushing up. Grandad lifted Peter over the fence to one Ambulance man. While he wrapped Peter in a big red blanket Grandad talked to the Ambulance driver. Two minutes later the Ambulance with Peter in it was out of sight.
“Right!” said Grandad turning to me. “We’ll deal with you now.”
I did not like the sound of that, “What’s up with Peter?” I asked.
“Never you mind. Can you walk?”
“Then get off home with you, And straight home, mind you, no larking about.”
I shook my head, then nodded.
“And if I ever catch you sledding on here again I’ll tan your hide so hard you’ll stand up for a month. You hear?”
I was not going to argue. It was plain that he meant what he said. He lifted me over the fence, none too gently and watched me go slowly towards home.
The gang was waiting round the corner with the sledges. Nobody said much on the way home. My Mother gave me a roasting for putting Peter in danger. There was no sympathy for my sore legs, just complaints as if it was all my fault. At least I found out what was wrong with Peter. Grandad Acock had rung Simon’s mother to say that Peter had been rushed off to the local hospital. Stew’s father was a long distance lorry driver and was at home for once. He drove Peter’s Mum to the Hospital in his lorry. It seems that Peter had stopped breathing for a bit because of his asthma.
“Your Grandad saved his life,” said my Dad when he came in. I showed him my legs. All he said was," They’ll heal. And it’s no more than you deserve."
Peter was out of hospital within a few days no worse for his adventure, but he was not allowed to play out for a while after that.
The snow stayed until my legs were healed enough to go out again.
“Stay away from Holly Bank” warned mum as I went out. “Do you hear?”
Simon was waiting for me. “I’ve just been to Leather’s farm with my Dad for Spuds.”
“So,” I was still annoyed with him. Peter’s (and my) accident was his fault.
“We came past the Leas,” he went on. “The snow looked great for sledding and there is no fences.”
I was interested. The Leas was an open area of sloping meadows on the other side of town. We did not go there very often. It was out of our territory.
“I’m game. Where’s everyone else?” I wanted to know.
“Round the back of Bob’s.”
“Great, let’s go then.”
Mum had only banned me from Holly Bank she had not said stay in Ashton Rd. Minutes later we were on our way.
The Leas were smashing, the snow icy and flat, the slopes steep long and exciting. Across the middle of the meadows in a deep gully was a stream. This flowed from its source somewhere the other side of a factory that made sulphuric acid down to the river. My other Grandad always said that when he was a little boy, hundreds of years ago the water was full of frogs and fish and things. Now the ‘water’ was a peculiar rusty yellow colour and the banks were encrusted with yellow powder. A yellow mist hung permanently over the gully. The best slopes led down to the edge of this gully. They levelled out giving one time to stop or turn.
“Race you down” shouted Stew.
“Give us Ten yards start,” ordered Noddy.
Reluctantly I agreed.
We were flying. I was rapidly overtaking Simon. The others were well behind or had fallen off. The finishing line was in sight. I flashed over it looking to the side to see where Simon was. He was half a yard behind.
“I won!” I crowed. In my excitement I completely forgot to stop or turn. Before I could do anything about it I was over the edge and really flying. At this point the gully was about ten feet wide and five feet deep with the stream in the bottom. There was not time to even scream before the sledge and I began to fall.
Somehow I managed to land on my feet in the stream. The sledge flew on to land in the yellow snow on the farther bank. For a full two minutes I stood in the foot deep liquid shaking my head in disbelief.
Simon’s head appeared over the gully edge. “Here he is,” he called, “In the stream.” The rest of the gang lined the gully
“Are you OK?” asked Stew.
“Yeah, yeah, give me a hand out and the first one to laugh gets murdered.”
“I’m not laughing,” said Bob quickly.
“Well just don’t, that’s all.”
They slid down and helped me get the sledge out taking great care not to go in the stream.
I had had enough “I am going home, you lot can do as you please.”
It was about twenty minutes walk home. I put the sledge in the coal shed and went in.
“What on earth have you done to your clothes and your wellies? "Mum said. I looked down. There were little holes and some big ones all over my coat and my wellies were covered in yellow. I tried to explain but mothers have a habit of not listening when they are as angry as mine was. I had to have a bath and all my clothes went into the bin.
“That sledge can go back tomorrow and I never want to see it again”. She said a lot more of it none of it very pleasant.
Next morning I trudged off to Uncle Joe’s. He was in and listened to my story. When he stopped giggling he said," Well, I suppose you Mum is right. Listen, leave it here and I’ll overhaul it. Keep quiet about it until your Mum forgets, then you can come and get it back, OK?"
“Thanks Uncle Joe.”
It did not really matter. The following day the weather took a turn for the worse. It got warmer and rained. The snow turned to slush and disappeared. I did not care. I had lost interest in sledding
tew and I were working on my bike in the back yard. The chain kept slipping off so it needed tightening.
“Billy, take this not round to your Granny Jones’s” It was my mother.
“Can Stew come with me? I asked.
“Yes, but don’t be too long,” she replied.
Neither of us minded going to my Granny Jones’s. She owned a small general shop of the kind found on most street corners in those days. She was generous with treats for small hungry boys sent on messages. We went there the quickest way through the back alleys and delivered the note. We decided to come back by a different route to make sure that we had finished the sweets before we reached home.
Between Granny Jones’s and Ashton Rd was an area of the town that was very much scruffier and run down than where we lived. Crumbling terrace hoses opened straight out on to the cracked and uneven pavements. Half the widows were boarded up, even in the occupied houses. Those window frames still with glass showed little evidence cleaning or paint on the woodwork. Ragged clothed children played in the gutters. Old women gossiped on the door steps. All seemed to view passers-by with suspicion and dislike.
At the top of one of these slum streets my bicycle chain came off again. Stew did not here me shout and kept going. Hurriedly I fixed my machine. I did not want to hang about on my own in that part of the world. As I raced after Stew, a huge, flaming-red haired figure leapt out of a door way. He grabbed Stew and pulled him from his bike and on to the floor.
I must have had a brainstorm. I did not stop to think of the possible consequences. I pedaled hard and accelerated until I was almost level with the red haired thug. There was not time to apply the brakes His foot was drawn back to kick Stew. With a scream of rage I launched myself, head first and scored a direct hit in his midriff with both fists. The lout collapsed in a heap with me on top of him.
“Gerrup and scram”! I screamed at Stew as I scrambled up. Seconds later, before the would-be thief could get his breath, we were pedaling for dear life.
We did not stop until we were safe at home. Flinging down his bike Stew puffed “What was that all about?”
“That!” I said now trembling with reaction. “That was Finnegan.”
“Who’s Finnegan when he’s at home then?”
“Finnegan is the biggest, nastiest meanest bully anybody could ever have the bad luck to meet,” I told him with a nasty sinking sensation in my stomach.
“How do you know him then?” Stew wanted to know.
“He is in the fourth year at school,” I said miserably. “And he’s got a gang nearly as horrible as him.”
“Oh! Do you think he recognised you?” Stew asked.
“You’ve had it then, haven’t you? Stew said sympathetically.
I did not need to be told that. On Monday morning Finnegan and his cronies would be waiting for me. They would beat me to a pulp and then kick the pulp into a smear on the playground.
“It’s all right for you,” I told Stew. “You’re a Catholic, you go to a different school.”
“Sorry! What are you gonna do?
“Heaven knows. I’ll have to think of something.” I was very worried.
“I am awful sorry, but thanks for saving me,” said Stew.
I was wishing that I had gone off quietly round the corner and waited for a battered and cycle-less Stew to arrive. We could have gone to the Police. I did not tell Stew that after all he was a friend.
“I’ll have to go, said Stew, “see you on Monday night?”
I was not allowed to play out on a Sunday. “If I am still alive,” I sighed.
I went in and started work on getting out of going to school on Monday morning All Sunday I tried. I was sick. I had a headache. I was dizzy. I cried, I pleaded, I begged, I beseeched, all in vain.
“I don’t know what you are up to my lad, but come what may you are going to school on Monday. I am not having you under my feet when I am doing the washing,” said Mum.
I got a smack for being cheeky when I sniffed, “You care more for clean sheets than you do for me.”
My Dad asked, “Why don’t you want to go to school?”
I found that I could not tell him that his only son was a coward. There are some truths that parents should never find out.
At 8.40 am. on Monday morning I was stood at the bus stop with Dad and Mary. This going to school with Dad was nothing to do with my Finnegan troubles. It was as a result of a letter from Mary’s teacher. Mary used to take me to school at one time. She had been arriving with a rash of bruises on her shins. Nobody believed me when I claimed self-defence. I had no evidence. Her hair pulling left no marks while my boots did. Still it meant that at 8.45 am. Mary and I got off the bus near to school.
“Can I walk with you?” I smiled sweetly art her. She might have hated me, but no one else was allowed to thump me when she was around and if anyone could handle Finnegan it was Mary.
“Get lost yer little pest.” Her fists were already clenched. I dropped back and walked ten paces behind her. She kept turning round and glaring at me. I did not care.
When she turned to go in through the Girls’ entrance there was still another unprotected fifty feet or so, for me to walk. I hung around outside for as long as I dared, but being late for school was a sending to the Headmaster offence. On balance I think he scared me more than even Finnegan did. Salvation came in the round shape of Mr. Peach my class teacher.
His loud voice made me jump. “What are you hanging about for. You should be in the yard by now.”
“I was just thinking, sir,” I replied, not really thinking.
“Hummph! The day you start thinking my lad we’ll put the flag up.”
“One day,” I thought. “All the things you would put flags up for will come true and the school will have more bunting on it than the town did for the Coronation” I did not say it out loud though. I am not a complete idiot.
I allowed myself to be shepherded into the yard by Mr. Peach, past Finnegan and his gang who were waiting just inside. Fear stopped me from enjoying their frustration. I followed Mr. Peach until we reached the toilets. I dashed in and locked the door. I was safe for a little while. When the whistle went I waited for a few seconds, then I sprinted into my line just before Mr. Peach came to lead us in.
“You are up to something, my lad,” he said, looking down at me puffing at the end of the line." I shall be keeping an eye on you."
I prayed that he would, a very close eye, but there was no depending on it.
In the cloakroom, my school friend Rob said, “I hear Finnegan is after you.”
“You heard right,” I said and told him the story.
“Oh boy, are you in for it?” He thought for a few moments. “Er, I, erm, think I’ll play with someone else for a while. I’m sure you understand.”
“Great friend you are.” I was not really surprised. I would have done the same thing myself had the positions been reversed. After all personal survival came before friendship.
My next concern was Playtime. There would be a teacher on duty, true, but there were plenty of dark corners where I could be dragged. If the whole school knew Finnegan was after me there was nowhere to hide. Some cowardly rat would go and tell. I could not stay in the toilets. The duty teacher would soon haul me out and ask awkward questions.
It never entered my head to complain to the teachers. It was just not done to tell tales. If I had gone in after play, battered and bloody they would have asked, naturally, but I could not have told them. The whole school would never have spoken to me again. Even death at the hands and feet of Finnegan was better than being an outcast.
The solution to my playtime problem came to me in the middle of Morning Assembly and nearly got me into trouble with the Headmaster. The idea arrived during his talk and without thinking I exclaimed “Got it!” Then I realised and quickly turned to look at the boy behind me, pretending it was he who had spoken. The Headmaster shouted at him He was a Fourth year and a softy so it did not matter if he glared at me.
What I had decided to do required perfect judgement. I had to give Mr. Peach just enough trouble for him to keep me in at playtime, but not so much that he caned me and sent me out. Mr. Peach did not believe in giving two punishments for the same crime.
The morning began with Arithmetic. I was not very good at that. It is far more difficult to get a sum deliberately wrong than to get it wrong by accident, but I managed it.
Rob, who shared my desk whispered. “You’ve got number two wrong, its nine hundred and seventy three.”
“Shut up traitor, I know.” I whispered back fiercely.
He looked puzzled. When I took my book out to be marked Mr. Peach was not pleased with my efforts. He leant down from his high desk. “You definitely are up to something and I don’t like it. I think you had better stay in at playtime and do these again, properly.”
I could have reached up and kissed him. I was so relieved that I started to say “Thank-you,” but managed to change it to a cough. He raised one eyebrow and pointed to my seat. I sat down in what I hoped was the manner of a bitterly disappointed child. In reality my heart was singing.
“Clever!” whispered Bob.
“Shurrup, he’ll guess if you carry on.”
Getting the sums right at playtime was no trouble. When Mr. Peach went out of the room for his cup of tea I looked at the answer book on his desk.
Dinnertime was easier. Finnegan stayed for school dinners while I went to my Granny Jones’s. School dinners were served at exactly 12 o clock With any luck Granny Jones could be persuaded to let me stay off school for the afternoon. Mr. Peach was suspicious of my offer to collect in the books at lunchtime. He had to let me do it though, nobody else wanted to and I had got all my sums right in the end. By the time I got out the school dinner people were in the canteen eating.
My mother had obviously been round and talked to Granny. Just as I was about to start feeling sick, Granny got her hat and coat and said, “I am going to the Market. I’ll walk down to school with you.”
I knew that was just an excuse. She never ever left Grandad Jones in charge of the shop. My shoe laces came undone. I looked in every shop window. I dawdled and lagged behind, but it made no difference. Granny slowly led me to my doom.
Terror and near panic, forced me to plan a desperate and dangerous escapade. At the corner of the road I said, “OK. Granny, I promise to go into school.”
“Well you know what happens to people who don’t keep their promises?” She looked at me over the top of her glasses.
I nodded, “Don’t worry I am going into school.”
“All right son Have a nice time.”
I watched her go off down the main road. As I explained before, the Girls Entrance was nearer to the corner than the Boys Entrance. But and this was the big snag, the Girls Entrance was guarded by a dragon of a Dinner Lady. Her job was to stop anybody getting in, except the girls of course. There was a way from the girls’ yard into the boys’ yard, not an official route, but possible if desperate.
I waited until a large group of girls demanded entry. Quietly I sneaked behind them, through the gate and past the Dragon. I was in. A quick dash across their playground took me to the wall that separated their yard from ours. By now I had been seen and the girls were squealing and screaming.
The wall was eight feet high. I swear that I hurdled it. I do not remember climbing up it nor dropping down the other side. Luck or something must have been on my side. Nobody on the girls’ side seemed to have recognised me and no body on the boys’ side saw me at all.
The whistle went almost immediately. The look on Finnegan’s face when he saw me lined up with the rest of my class was one of pure baffled rage. It made my blood turn cold. I was finding out the hard way that cowards die many times before their death. I was also beginning to realise that sooner or later I would have to face Finnegan. I wanted it to be a lot later.
In my fear I had forgotten that Monday was games day. There was no afternoon playtime. The School did not have its own playing fields so the whole of the third and fourth year boys were taken by bus to a set of fields a few miles away.
Finnegan was the star player of the Schools rugby team. They normally played separately from the rest of us. Not on this afternoon Mr. Peach announced that the rest of the third and the fourth year were to provide a team to play against the School team. I noticed that he did not mention this until after I was already changed. If I had known, I would have lost a boot.
We all lined up. Mr. Peach walked down the line choosing players. I may have been a third year but I was wider and heavier than most of the fourth year. I was selected.
“You can play at prop forward against Finnegan. He needs some weight against him.” Mr Peach said.
He moved on before I could get my voice working to protest. There would have been little point. Mr. Peach was in a bad mood. Some naughty boy had been seen in the Girls’ playground at lunch time and nobody would own up to being the guilty party.
I could see from the gleam in Finnegan’s eye that he thought that his chance had come. We lined up for the kick off. Right opposite me Finnegan stood, flexing his muscles. I decided that under no circumstances whatsoever was I going to tackle him or give him the chance to tackle me.
The school team kicked off. The ball gently travelled the ten yards that it was supposed to and landed, plop, in my arms. In great surprise I stood and looked down at the ball then up at the opposition.
This great, huge, hairy monster, like something out of a Spanish Bullring was charging at me. I could almost see the stem coming from his nostrils and he was definitely snarling.
I panicked. Instead of throwing the ball away, anywhere, I began to run. Not as you might think away from Finnegan, but towards him Years of being taught that you ran at the opposition guided by uncontrolled legs.
Fear is a marvellous thing. Without really knowing what I was doing, I side-stepped Finnegan’s mad rush, ducked under his flailing arms, handed off another would be tackler and set off the down the field. When Finnegan managed to stop, he turned and gave chase. I ran like a scalded cat. Now not only was he the best Rugby player in the School he was also the School Sprint Champion. As much as fear lent me wings and with a good fifteen yards start, he soon began to catch up.
To gain speed I must have shut my eyes. I could still feel and hear him getting nearer and nearer. I opened my eyes just in time to see the goal post no more than a pace away. My last ounce of nervous energy was just enough to dodge the post and put the ball down over the line for a try.
I turned as the whistle went meaning safety and was just in time to see Finnegan run head first into the goal post and collapse.
Unfortunately, he had a hard head and the base of the post was well padded. Still it was a good five minutes before he could return to the game.
Mr. Peach, grudgingly I thought, congratulated me on my try. My team mates were very pleased with me. Mr. Peach tore a strip of the School team for allowing me to run through then so easily. They all glared at me as if it was my fault
When Finnegan returned to the game he still looked a bit dazed. He cheered up a bit when the whistle went for a scrum. Mr. Peach fussed about showing the second row forwards how to pack down properly. Finnegan glared at me from a yard away.
Rob who had also been chosen, was standing next to me. He was at scrum half.
“What’s it gonna be then, a knee in the groin…a swift uppercut… or a head butt?”
“Shut up you traitor. "How nice it was to have sympathetic friends.
Finally Mr. Peach was satisfied and down we went. Fortunately, he decided to put the ball into the scrum himself to check on how the forwards were playing. He would have certainly seen any foul play be Finnegan and punished it severely. It did not stop Finnegan from whispering in my ear, “I’ll kill you!” His teeth were too close to my ear for comfort.
The ball came in and we all pushed. Finnegan was so busy threatening me that he was caught off balance. He lost his footing on the muddy field. My second row gave another really hard push and I lurched forward. Somebody shouted “Ball gone” and I found myself kneeling in the middle of the field, on my own while the rest of the players chased off down the field after the lad with the ball.
Well, I was not quite alone and it was not mud or grass that I was kneeling on. It was, in fact, a head. Moreover, the head was covered in dirty flaming-red hair. I did not wait for Finnegan to push me off. I got up and ran. I was going to spend the rest of the game stood as near to Mr. Peach as possible.
The scratch team had just scored another try and Mr. Peach was fuming. The school’s star player was being made to look stupid and the team was losing to a bunch of no-hopers who only did games because they were not given the choice of doing something else.
When Finnegan arrived, scraping mud out of his eyes and mouth, Mr. Peach said to him. “If you don’t buck your ideas up, my lad, you will be out of the team.”
The game went on. Neither the ball, nor any one needing tackling came anywhere near me. Mr. Peach moved me to the back of the scrum so Finnegan could not get at me then either. I began to enjoy watching the game from the protection of Mr. Peach’s side. He did not seem too happy about my following him. I could put up with him glowering at me.
The School team were getting worse. It did not seem to matter what they did, they could not score. The harder they tried the worse they got, the worse they got the more angry Mr. Peach became.
Then I made a foolish mistake. One of the school team took the ball, saw a gap in our defence and hared through it. He did not see me hiding behind the bulk of the teacher. Forgetting everything in the excitement of the game, I tackled him. The tackle was straight out of the coaching manual. He went down like a lead balloon.
Mr. Peach stopped the game. He looked at me with an odd expression and announced that the Rest had beaten the School Team by two tries to nil. We gave ourselves cheer. Mr. Peach stopped the cheering with a stern look.
“Since the School team appear to have forgotten everything which I have spent the last three years teaching them about Rugby,” he snarled. We sniggered. He frowned. We stopped. “And since the rest of you have never even bother to try to learn them.” We muttered He frowned. We stopped. "We will spend the rest of the session practising the basics. "We groaned. Mr. Peach smiled.
“And since the only decent run and the only decent tackle came from you,” he pointed at me.
I would have bowed if he had not been in such a foul mood.
“You can show everybody else how to do it.”
Terrifying thoughts began to creep into my brain.
“The school team can practise taking the ball on the run and how to be tackled,” finished Mr. Peach. He made the School team line up opposite me. When he shouted they had to catch the ball from his pass and charge at me, one at a time. In the normal run of things I could have done that all day. The one thing I could do in Rugby was tackle.
The first person to be called was, naturally, Finnegan. I had to decide whether I was more afraid of him or the teacher. To judge by the way Mr Peach’s moustache was bristling, he was very angry indeed. I felt like one of those Roman gladiators. “We who are about to die salute you.” Let’s face it you can only die once, but I had another year and a half to suffer from Mr. Peach. I prepared to die.
Finnegan took the ball and charged as if he was in an Olympic 100 metres Sprint final. There was going to be no fancy dodging or weaving for him. This was his chance to go straight through me and out the other side. The _expression on his face was one of indescribable viciousness. Behind me I heard the watching boys take a deep breath, anticipating the body breaking crunch. My body that is.
I concentrated, going quickly through what I had been taught about tackling. It is amazing how many thoughts can flick through your mind in a short time. The tackle was perfect, head well out of the way, shoulder driving into the attacker’s midriff, allowing his weight a speed to take him down. In his desire to trample me into the mud Finnegan must have forgotten everything he knew about being tackled. When I stood up to a cheer from my team Finnegan stayed where he was in an untidy heap. He had landed on the ball and winded himself.
Mr. Peach said, Well done," to me and sounded as if he meant it
By the time he had recovered the School team were practising tackling. This was quite enjoyable. Nobody was trying to hurt anybody. Finnegan tackled the first lad who ran at him, gingerly, but hard and fair. Then it was my turn. Mr. Peach shouted “Run!” Finnegan crouched down ten yards away. But, instead of glaring at me as he had done all day, his eyes kept shifting left and right as if he was seeking a means of escape. A wonderful, glorious happy though leapt into my brain, he was afraid of me. I had won.
The ton of lead in my stomach instantly evaporated. My step lightened. A second later I crashed into him. It was not deliberate. To some extent it was his own fault. My left knee connected with his right eye.
The rest of the lesson passed in a daze as did the bus ride back to school and the walk home. Stew was waiting for me. I told him what had happened. We laughed so much that my father came out to see what was the matter. I explained it all to him.
Next morning I strutted into school Finnegan was stood on his own. I went over to him. His right eye was blackened and half closed. I looked at him. He looked at the ground. “I heard you were after me,” I said. “Well here I am”.
My father had told me it was better to face Finnegan and get it over with. I was not feeling as brave as I sounded, but Dad said that I had to talk big so I was.
“Look ’ere, you,” said Finnegan.
“I’m looking” I forced myself to speak calmly and sound confident.
Finnegan went on, still looking down. “You keep out of my way and I’ll keep out of yours.”
“That’s all right by me,” I told him.
“Good!” said Finnegan
We never ever spoke to each other again.
- 7 Dec, 2010
- 8 likes
Previous post: A job too far?
Next post: A New Crevice Garden and Alpine Lawn
Recent posts by Owdboggy
Members who like this blog
Gardening with friends since
10 Sep, 2010
Gardening with friends since
18 Sep, 2009
Gardening with friends since
3 Apr, 2010
Gardening with friends since
30 Nov, 2010
Gardening with friends since
16 Jul, 2009
Gardening with friends since
29 Mar, 2008
Gardening with friends since
14 Apr, 2011
Gardening with friends since
22 Oct, 2008